Dissertation Research: “Ecologies of Friendship: Learning North American Practices of Care with Western Herbalists”

For all those of you out there who are curious, here’s the extended abstract of my dissertation, completed 2018. I am developing a book manuscript based on this research in 2019 and early 2020.

In this ethnography of North American herbalists’ teaching practices, I focus on how herbalists learn to care for plants and ecologies as well as humans. Herbalists understand human health as reliant on our relationships with what they call “obligate ecologies”—that is, the ecological others and places to which humans must be accountable in order for all to thrive. They frame the work of accountability through language of “connection,” “communication” and “friendship” across species. At The Center, plant-based medicine is set up as a practice that teaches bodies, plants, and ecologies through multiple modalities of knowledge in order to produce practices of herbalist care that include plants as well as people. I examine their efforts to cultivate attentive relations between humans and with plants as practices of care. Like Maria de la Bellacasa’s permaculturists, herbalists “put caring at the heart of [their] search of alternatives for hopeful flourishing for all beings” (de la Bellacasa 2010). My theoretical approach to understanding herbalist pedagogies is rooted in a feminist ethic of care, drawing on the work of anthropologists and science studies scholars in order to suggest that care practices and ethics, in a moment of climate change, must extend to multispecies assemblages.

Scholarship on environmental justice movements, and particularly around mobilizations after disease outbreaks, “natural” and toxic disasters has worked to frame human health as a natural-cultural phenomenon, in Donna Haraway’s useful term. Kim Fortun, Michelle Murphy, Nancy Peluso, Rob Nixon and others have argued compellingly for careful ethnographic and historical attention to the political, social, and material connections of bodies with environments. Recently, these attentions have been sharpened by scholarly and public awareness of the impacts of climate change and global ecological disruption on human health. Alex Nading analyzes dengue fever in Nicaragua as a matter of human-mosquito-landscape entanglements, changing as rainfall patterns change, and influenced by the material landscapes of poverty. Anna Tsing has suggested that we accept the fact that we live on “a damaged planet,” and has worked to bridge the disciplinary divides that keep biologists, physicists, anthropologists and science studies scholars from collaborating to imagine what it might mean to thrive in damaged environments. I draw on their work, and that of fellow traveling scholars, to build my analysis of the pedagogical practices of clinical herbalist teachers in the United States.

Although the tools for critical analysis of the ways that we learn what “health” means are available, provided by social studies of technology and medicine (e.g. Gregg Mitman, Lochlann S. Jain, Bruno Latour, Rachel Prentice, Colleen Derkatch, Margaret Lock, Sienna Craig), few studies to date have offered an in-depth analysis of health practitioners whose frame for teaching health care for humans also necessarily involves teaching care for environmental ecologies. My ethnographic examination of the pedagogical tools and practices that herbalists use illustrates the ways that they hope their students will learn, through direct sensory engagement, how bodies are tangled up with ecologies, and how the health of plants and humans is connected in the context of climate change. I offer a sustained engagement with the production of contemporary western

herbalism as an “alternative” to biomedicine—one which frequently also engages with the knowledge-production tools of biomedical practitioners. Finally, I position both the historical production of western herbalism, and the contemporary practices of teaching and learning it, in the context of the United States enduring the legacies, and ongoing practices, of colonialism and its entailments.

In the first chapter, “Reading the Landscapes of Herbalism,” I examine the histories that set the stage for the emergence of herbalism as a growing field of alternative medical practice in the United States broadly, as well as attending specifically to the ways that shifts in economics, social order, and land use shaped the role that Vermont as a place plays in this national picture.

In Chapter Two, “Western Herbalism in the United States: A Brief History,” I argue that the ways herbalist teachers’ pedagogical practices emerge and institutionalize can be best situated historically by examining the professionalization of technological biomedicine at the turn of the 20th century. This chapter helps to frame the current day consequences of late 19th-century professionalizations and legislations surrounding medical education, laying the groundwork for understanding how botanical remedies moved out of the realm of everyday medical practice, and outlining the stakes of recognition, legitimacy, and institutionalization for practitioners of herbal medicine.

My third chapter, “21st Century Herbalists in Regulatory Worlds,” considers the question of how herbal therapeutics render plants and people legible, or translatable, across boundaries of practice today. I examine how contemporary herbalists articulate claims to legitimacy of their botanical medicine practice, arguing that pedagogical practices at The Center serve to instill a sense of what kinds of (legal, social, political) claims that students (who will become practitioners) can make: about the circulation of certain remedies as “natural;” about the utility of practices for understanding “active ingredients;” and about their practices of rendering plant medicines legible and legitimate across systems of medical knowledge.

Chapter 4, “Constitutions, Actions, and Efficacy: the Matter of Translation in Herbalism,” analyzes the production of knowledge about plants and bodies and their corollary notions of efficacy as central to the process of crafting herbalist institutions that can speak to, critique, and make demands for recognition in the context of contemporary biomedical practices. In order to understand plant medicine’s efficacy, herbalists layer together forms of knowledge drawn from diverse practices around the world, including interpretations of South Asian Ayurvedic knowledges, Native North American medical knowledges, Chinese medical knowledges, and western biomedical scientific knowledges. I argue that these translated practices allow for bodies to be at once highly particular, and also enframable within the context of a “universal” object of analysis for western herbalists. It is here that herbalists stake their most articulate demands for legibility by contemporary biomedicine.

In Chapter 5, “Learning with Plants: Herbalist Entanglements,” I examine how herbalists glean knowledge about plants as living beings and as medicines through pedagogical practices that build their ability to attune to plant communications. I analyze herbalists’ efforts to “get down to plant time” and to read plants with the Doctrine of Signatures as methods that attend to “specific modalities of communication” (Kohn 2013), attending to how these teachings produce bodily sensations for herbalist students as they encounter the physical and imaginal factors of plants’ lives. I argue that the

sensate states herbalists move towards through these engagements with plants enables them to cultivate particular modes of bodily attention that try to mitigate the species divide, and that opens up herbalists’ understandings of what plants are capable of.

In chapter 6, “‘A friend to the plants’: Practices of Herbalism Beyond the Clinic,” I analyze teachers’ narrations of the specific kinds of relationships and entanglements of human and ecological health. They suggest that part of the work of a “good herbalist” is to “make friends” with plants, and frame friendship in terms of an ethic of care for plants, people and planet. “Befriending” plants instructs students in attuning to ecological assemblages conditioned by the entanglements of human and other-than-human health.

This dissertation argues that the pedagogical practices by which herbalist teachers help students learn how to be a “friend to the plants” intends to enable new herbalists to imagine the entanglements of plants, people and ecologies, and then to act with reference to those ecological assemblages. By drawing plural ecologies into interaction with each other explicitly, herbalists practice attention to entanglements. It is this attention to the ways that seemingly disparate ecologies entangle that enables them to generate care practices that take into account a plurality of processes when considering human health. Herbalists learn to care for bodies because they learn to attend to, and care for, plants as friends and kin. I suggest that their pedagogies and practices lay bare American modes of knowing, encountering, and producing personal and environmental health today.

Herbalists’ attempts to reconcile the work of power, histories of colonial knowledge production, diverse formulations of what a body, a plant, and an ecology is and can do, strike me as thoughtful attempts to wrestle with the question of how to live well in the context of existing realities—capitalism’s reformulation of the “good life” into one focused on progress, profit and productivity; uneven distribution of resources and power; unequal access to health and the potential to shape what counts as illness. Herbalists’ wrestlings, in the form of pedagogical engagement with students around how to mobilize care practices under fraught conditions, offer a fertile site for this discussion of the intersections of ecological and human health.